Chers amis de Vernon Lee,
with this charming piece from Vernon Lee’s collection Hortus Vitae, we wish you all a merry Christmas!
avec ce charmant texte extrait du recueil de Vernon Lee Hortus Vitae nous vous souhaitons un très joyeux Noël.
We hope to find you refreshed and happily looking forward to a joyful optimistic leap into 2022, with our exciting forthcoming Vernon Lee event in Boulogne-sur-Mer (France) and perhaps in England too.
Nous espérons vous retrouver reposés et en pleine forme pour envisager avec joie de plonger bientôt dans la nouvelle année et ses promesses passionnantes: nos retrouvailles en France à l’occasion de l’AG de l’IVLS et du colloque de Boulogne-sur-Mer, et peut-être en Angleterre également.
Best season greetings
Joyeux Noël à tous et toutes!
A STAGE JEWEL
Vernon Lee, Hortus Vitae
“It doesn’t seem to be precisely what is meant by old paste,” she answered, repeating the expression I had just made use of, while she handed me the diamond hoop across the table. “It’s too like real stones, you know. I think it must be a stage jewel.”
As I fastened the brooch again in my dress, I was aware of a sudden little change in my feelings. I was no longer pleased. Not that I had hoped my diamonds might prove real; you cannot buy real diamonds, even in imagination, for four francs, which was the precise sum I had expended on these, and there were seven of them, all uncommonly large. Nor can I say that the words “old paste” had possessed, on my lips, any plain or positive meaning. But stage jewel, somehow … My moral temperature had altered: I was dreadfully conscious that I was no longer pleased. Now, I had been, and to an absurd degree.
Perhaps because it was Christmas Eve, when I suddenly found myself inside that curiosity shop, pricing the diamonds, and not without an emotion of guilty extravagance, and of the difficulty of not buying if the price proved too high…. As is always the case with me at that season, my soul was irradiated with a vague sense of festivity, perhaps with the lights of rows of long-extinguished Christmas trees in the fog of many years, like the lights of the shops caught up and diffused in the moist twilight. I had felt an inner call for a Christmas present; and, so far, nobody had given me one. So I had paid the money and driven back into the dark, soughing country with the diamond hoop loose in my pocket. I had felt so very pleased…. And now those two cursed words “stage jewel” had come and spoilt it all.
For the first time I felt it was very, very hard that my box should have been broken open last autumn and all my valuables, my Real (the word became colossal), not stage, jewels stolen. It was brought home to me for the first time that the man who did it must have been very, very wicked; and that codes of law, police and even prisons could afford satisfaction to my feelings. Since, oddly enough, I had really not minded much at the time, nor let my pleasure in that wonderful old castle, where I had just arrived with the violated trunk, be in the least diminished by the circumstance. Indeed, such is the subtle, sophistic power of self-conceit, that the pleasure of finding, or thinking I found, that I did not mind the loss of those things had really, I believe, prevented me minding it. Though, of course, every now and then I had wished I might see again the little old-fashioned fleur-de-lysed star which had been my mother’s (my heart smote me for not feeling sufficiently how much she would have suffered at my losing it). And I remembered how much I had liked to play with those opals of the Queen of Hearts, which seemed the essence of pale-blue winter days with a little red flame of sunset in the midst; or, rather, like tiny lunar worlds, mysterious shining lakes and burning volcanoes in their heart. Of course, I had not been indifferent: that would have taken away all charm from the serenity with which I had enjoyed my loss. But I had been serene, delightfully serene. And now!…
There was something vaguely vulgar, odious, unpardonable about false stones. I had always maintained there was not, but the stage jewel made me feel it. Mankind has sound instincts, rooting in untold depths of fitness; and superfine persons, setting themselves against them,
reveal their superficiality, their lack of normal intuition and sound judgment, while fancying themselves superior. And mankind (save among barbarous Byzantine and Lombard kings, who encrusted their iron crowns impartially with balas rubies, antique cameos, and bottle
glass)–mankind has always shown an instinct against sham jewels and their wearers. It is an unreasoned manifestation of the belief in truth as the supreme necessity for individuals and races, without which, as we know, there would be an end of commerce, the administration of justice, government, even family life (for birds, who have no such sense, are proverbially ignorant of their father), and everything which we call civilization. Real precious stones were perhaps created by Nature, and sham stones allowed to be created by man, as one of those moral symbols in which the universe abounds: a mysterious object-lesson of the difference between truth and falsehood.
Real diamonds and rubies, I believe, require quite a different degree of heat to melt them than mere glass or paste; and you can amuse yourself, if you like, by throwing them in the fire. In the Middle Ages rubies, but only real ones, were sovereign remedies for various diseases, among others the one which carried off Lorenzo the Magnificent; and in the seventeenth century it was currently reported that the minions of the Duke of Orleans had required pounded diamonds to poison poor Madame Henriette in that glass of chicory water. And as to pearls, real ones go yellow if unworn for a few months, and have to be sunk fathoms deep in the sea, in safes with chains and anchors, and detectives sitting day and night upon the beach, and sentries in sentry-boxes; none of which occurs with imitations. Likewise you stamp on a real pearl, while you must be quite careful not to crush a sham
one. All these are obvious differences revealing the nobility of the real thing, though not necessarily adding to its charm. But, then, there is the undoubted greater beauty, the wonderful je ne sais quoi, the depth of colour, purity of substance, effulgence of fire, of real gems, which we all recognize, although it is usual to have them tested by an expert before buying. And, when all is said and done, there is the difference in intrinsic value. And you need not imagine that value is a figment. Political economy affords us two different standards of value, the Marxian and the Orthodox. So you cannot escape from believing in it. A thing is valuable either (a) according to the amount of labour it embodies, or (b) according to the amount of goods or money you can obtain in exchange for it. Now, only let your mind dwell upon the value (a) embodied in a pearl or diamond. The pearl fisher, who doubtless frequently gets drowned; let alone the oyster, which has to have a horrid mortal illness, neither of which happens to the mean-spirited artificer of Roman pearls; or the diamond seeker, seeking through deserts for months; the fine diamond merchant, dying in caravans, of the past; and, finally, the diamond-cutter, grinding that adamant for weeks far, far more indefatigably than to make the optic lenses which reveal hidden planets and galaxies. All that labour, danger, that weary, weary time embodied in a thing so tiny that, like Queen Mab, it can sit on an alderman’s forefinger! What could be more deeply satisfactory to think upon? And as to value (b) (the value in Exchange of Mill, Fawcett, Marshall, Say, Bastiat, Gide), just think what you could buy by selling a largish diamond, supposing you had one! And what unlikely prices (fabulous, even monstrous) are said to have been given, before and after dubious Madame de la Motte priced that great typical one, for diamond necklaces by queens and heroines of every degree!
Precious stones, therefore, are heaven-ordained symbols of what mankind values most highly–power over other folks’ labour, time, life, happiness, and honour. And that, no doubt, is the reason that when the irreproachable turn-out and perfect manners of pickpockets allow them to mix freely in our select little gatherings, it is legitimate for a lady to deck herself with artificial pearls and diamonds only to the exact extent that she has real ones safely deposited at the bank. Let her look younger and sound honester than perhaps answers to the precise reality; there is no deception in all that. But think of the dishonourableness of misleading other folk about one’s income….
My soul was chastened by the seriousness of these reflections and by the recognition of the moral difference between real stones and sham ones, and I was in a very bad humour. Suddenly there came faint sounds of guitars and a mandolin, and I remembered that the servants were giving a ball at the other end of the house, and that it was Christmas Eve. I rose from my table and opened the window, letting in the music with the pure icy air. The night had become quite clear; and in its wintry blue the big stars sparkled in a cluster between the branches of my pine tree. They made me think of the circlet which Tintoret’s Venus swoops down with over the head of the ruddy Bacchus and rose-white Ariadne. Those, also, I said to myself ill-humouredly, were probably stage jewels…. I cannot account for the sudden train of associations this word evoked: sweeping, magnificent gestures, star-like eyes, and a goddess’ brows shining through innumerable years; a bar or two of melodious ritornello; an ineffable sense of poetry and grandeur, and–but I am not sure–a note or two of a distant, distant voice. Could it be Malibran–or Catalani … and was my stage jewel bewitched, a kind of Solomon’s ring, conjuring up great spirits? All I can say is
that I have rarely spent a Christmas Eve like that one, while the servants’ ball was going on at the other end of the house, furbishing my imitation diamonds with a silk handkerchief, alone, or perhaps not alone, in my study.